This essay, in an earlier version, given as a paper at the conference on ‘Something We Have that They Don’t: Anglo-American Poetic Relations since the War’, organised by Mark Ford and Steve Clark under the aegis of the University of London.
Few 20th-century events, even in literary history alone, were at once important and relatively harmless. One was the rise and fall of Anglo-American literature. I use the term, in what may be too subjective a sense, to span the period from the birth of Whitman to the death of T.S. Eliot. It could be said that before Whitman, no American poet of real gifts wrote American literature; and after Eliot, none wrote anything else. Between these two points, two cultures, already to different degrees and in different ways interdependent, began to produce a fused, rich and ambiguous literature. This is a large subject, and I shan’t attempt to cover it. I want merely to offer some comment on three poets – Eliot, Larkin and Ashbery – who may all be said to throw different kinds of light on the phenomenon of Anglo-American culture.
First, some definitions: what, for instance, does it mean to be ‘American’ in this sense? Over the last century, American writers have returned to the shared apprehension that the problem for an American writer is one of language. Thinking aloud – in a letter written in 1932 – about his difficulties over Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill lamented his lack of a great language adequate to his tragic subject: ‘By way of self-consolation, I don’t think, from the evidence of all that is being written today, that great language is possible for anyone living in the discordant, broken, faithless rhythm of our time.’ ‘Our time’ is perhaps not just the 20th century, but the period that gave birth to American modern culture. And it is a bastard modernity in this sense that Saul Bellow – in the Romanes Lecture he gave in Oxford in 1990 – finds inescapable yet crippling for any writer reflecting the society of his time:
In public life everybody uses the same formulas – presidents, former presidents, senior statesmen, secretaries of state, leaders of the legal and other professions, celebrity financiers, talk-show hosts, university presidents, disc jockeys, leaders of the various liberation movements, star athletes, rock musicians, artists, singers, Hollywood personalities, publishers, the clerics of all churches, environmentalists . . . Sportscasters, rap musicians, university rightists, university leftists, all employ the same language.
It might be expected that two Nobel Prize-winners should share an image of modern American speech and life. Interestingly, though, a lament not all that different comes in a recent fiction, Romance, by one of the country’s leading crime writers, Ed McBain:
That had been the idea. Not a bad one, actually. One people. One good and decent, grave and honourable tribe.
But somewhere along the way, the idea began to dissipate. It had lasted longer than most ideas in America, where everything is in a state of incessant change. In America, there’s always a new president or a new war or a new television series or a new movie or a new talk show or a new hot writer. In view of the overwhelming wealth of ideas flooding America all the time, day and night, night and day, it wasn’t too surprising that people began thinking maybe the idea of mixing all those separate colours and languages hadn’t been such a hot one all along.
All three have in common the problem presented to the writer by American scale and diversity. Saul Bellow gave that topic a sharper definition when he called his lecture ‘The Distracted Public’. By ‘distraction’ he implies a fragmentation and confusion of culture endemic to modernity but essentially New World in its source. His focus is on the Information Revolution, the vast expansion of knowledge beyond human understanding or discipline, and the ensuing presence of incoherence and irrationality in the culture generally. He takes the representative case of multi-channel TV systems that – under the power of remote-control toys – ‘permit us to jump back and forth, mixing up beginnings, middles and ends, alternating Westerns with gamblers in Chinatown or talk shows’. He concludes: ‘The kid with the clicker is the Boss.’ Or, more sombrely: ‘Here consciousness emptily asserts itself.’
Both Whitman and Eliot, the polar American writers of modern life, are, perhaps, faintly present in echoes under Bellow’s powerful prose. The rhetoric of multiplicity is other than American (Robert Burton probably invented it for English prose) but both Bellow and McBain are probably hearing some rhythm from Whitman’s sometimes tedious but more often breathtaking echt American anaphoras, constructed to coast us as in a spaceship across an otherwise unparaphrasable vista of human data in a not-yet-cinematic continent. Whitman is the laureate of an America whose soul is scale, whose innocence is the discovery of new places and new spaces, of tracks always westward.
But diversity, for Bellow, is distraction. When he uses the word for his public, he is surely hearing a voice morally less concerned with innocence and culturally more European:
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper . . .
In the mid-1930s the American-born Eliot (who hated Whitman, though he, too, was haunted by his rhythms), in ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of his Quartets, took his fellow London Tube-travellers through their usual endless Inner Circle of non-being. Five years later, these travellers would reappear in ‘East Coker’ on a more spiritual journey ‘into the dark’:
the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent
men of letters.
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen
and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of
many committees . . .
It’s hard to think of a finer or more urbane poetry of distraction; and Bellow’s ‘presidents, former presidents, senior statesmen’ and others surely echo Eliot’s calm and radical humour. What the reader doesn’t find in Bellow is the dimension by which Eliot’s subversive spirituality can look hopefully for a different and good distraction; what is called, in ‘The Dry Salvages’, the ‘unattended/Moment, the moment in and out of time,/The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight’. Eliot is, in practice, both damning and blessing an earlier American progenitor, as if Whitman’s vast landscape could just occasionally stretch west through the dying day into God.
The three prose writers I began from – dramatist, novelist and crime writer – are all from their own angles defining 20th-century America as a distracted public. The OED glosses ‘distraction’ as ‘violent stretching or extension’, and as ‘dispersion, scattering’. I want on this basis to make use of a cliché. The United States of America constitutes a vast terrain, and one whose communities are ethnically unlike. Geographically, sociologically and culturally, the violently scattered and dispersed publics of America offer a peculiar challenge at any number of linguistic and substantial levels to the writer – especially the poet – who hopes for an audience continent-wide. The poet and his or her reader are inhabitants of what W.H. Auden described in the introduction to his Faber Book of Modern American Verse as ‘a continent only partially settled and developed, where human activity seems a tiny thing in comparison to the magnitude of the earth’. In her more recent Faber Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Helen Vendler has made a comparable point, arguing that geographically and topographically there must be many American poetries: ‘There will be no American landscape that does not speak in words as well as in line and colour.’
I am hoping to suggest that there is such a thing as Americanness; and, if we were prepared to risk a paradox, that there may be said to be such a thing as a pure Americanness in poetry. Earlier ‘Redskin’ poets such as William Carlos Williams sought to achieve it, probably, in contradistinction from the European corruptions of men like Eliot. But I find it much more strongly represented in such a post-Eliot poet as John Ashbery, who seems to me a true poet of distraction. The back cover of the 1985 paperback of his pleasing and elegant Selected Poems carries a handful of laudatory quotations from previous reviews. What is remarkable is how often they reflect, presumably unconsciously or accidentally, the definitions of the ‘distractive’ that I have been collecting here. Naming him ‘America’s leading poet’, the Irish Times explains: ‘There is a marvellous free stride in his best work, which extends the territory.’ The Independent adds: ‘At every step through the terrain of dream, memory and reflection, the surroundings change.’ This is surely notable, given that Ashbery is less settler or lumberjack than intensely intellectual and art-historical New Yorker. It is for this extraordinarily ‘distractive’ quality that I cite him here, and not because he is often now spoken of as the major contemporary American poet, or even as the greatest poet in English at the present time. Though he gives pleasure, he too often arouses uncertainty in me, even bewilderment, to allow decisive judgments of this kind. It would be relevant to say that I frequently don’t know ‘where I am’ in Ashbery’s work. I am distracted.
As O’Neill, Bellow and McBain wrote analytically (if from very different mind-sets and points of view), analysing American culture theoretically; as Auden and Vendler stressed its huge diversity, its ensuing dehumanisation; so Ashbery is writing from a comparably judged and critical style of Americanness: the art of distraction conceived in the head, in the convex mirror. If there is in his work a ‘terrain’, a ‘territory’, then it is the region of the city called Distraction, New York. In a 1983 interview, he remarked: ‘I live with this paradox. I am an important poet, read by younger writers, and on the other hand, nobody understands me.’ It doesn’t seem possible that this surprises the artist; the junction and balance of the two propositions is surely of the essence. The importance and the influence are the un-understanding, the distraction – particularly in a place and time that contrasts itself with a European context of secure communication. Probably the only poem of Ashbery’s of which I feel semi-certain that I understand every word is his magical ‘Into the Dusk-Charged Air’, from Rivers and Mountains, a free-verse observation, from different points of time and space, of a great many named rivers, all flowing towards freeze-up in different styles and manners. And even in this calmly fine and shimmering poem the rivers have the feel of distraction – it is away that they are flowing, from aside that they are described. As things elsewhere, envisaged, they ‘glisten feebly through the frozen rain’.
Ashbery’s incomprehensibility has little of the earlier great Modernists’ éclat, their aesthetic and symbolic whole-hoggishness and whole-heartedness. He writes with a privacy smilingly sociologised; he has sat in New York and thought about it, and knows why distraction has to be just like this. A very beautiful haiku from A Wave appears to define something living ‘In rags and crystals, sometimes with a shred of sense, an odd dignity’. This is the condition of the truly distracted, the finally, belatedly self-referential: important and un-understood.
As a reader, I envy other critics who write of Ashbery with praise or blame, love or hatred – let alone with valuations and degrees of importance. On the whole he is impossible to criticise with much meaning, because of his own, witty decision not to mean, one sophisticatedly in advance of any Modernistic desire to be, not mean – which is surely reliant on symbols, and Ashbery eschews symbols. His verbal devices seduce in passing but also turn aside approaches, as blows or caresses might glance off a convex mirror. His most obviously ambitious work is the long ontological Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, where the capturable self, like the bright notion of a reflection, lies in a finished artistry. Similarly, his volumes mount up, he possesses remarkable profuseness, always triumphing by tones, a consistent varied sweetness of good humour, high intelligence, skills that glitter like ‘rags and crystals’ or like the rivers that ‘glisten feebly through the frozen rain’.
‘Feebly’ and ‘frozen’: it is a fact that intensities are impossible in an art of distraction. When they are good enough to mesmerise the attention, and make a reader wish keenly for a deeper understanding, the poems all wear an angelic inattentiveness, like the suicidal novice of the very early ‘Illustration’, from Some Trees, who insists on diving from a cornice, ‘Out of the angels’ tenderness and the minds of men’. Highly sophisticated as the work always is, there is something self-knowing about that novice. One of the poems from April Galleons is titled ‘Life as a Book that has been put down’, and the work exists to put down life. We meet in it a finely poised and widely knowledgable humour and melancholy, but a rather marked lack of (for instance) the sense of good and evil; a lack large enough to incite the putting-down of a book that has put down life. Bellow, quoting Richard Rorty, instances angrily the philosophical ambitions of a distractive culture, its mimicking of philosophical procedures. It seems highly unlikely that Ashbery was at issue here. But it has to be said that his work has achieved a height of estimation by lacking the weight of ‘Life . . . that has been put down’. To have that weight, to have a greater depth and truth, it would need to be somehow more vicious than it is.
I have been trying to characterise John Ashbery as a brilliant master of distraction. He draws into his playful and difficult verse the loose and formless, if rational, concept of his culture as a language of diffusion, inattention, that he inhabits like Daffy Duck in Hollywood. His friend Frank O’Hara once grumbled that Ashbery was ‘always marrying the whole world’; charmingly, the poem ‘Houseboat Days’ itself admits that ‘The mind/Is so hospitable, taking in everything/Like boarders.’ Hence my reference to Hollywood, the chaotic factory of dreams – and the maddening, hypnotic, entrancing bewilderment of everything in his books, the exchanges and changes of topics and tenses, of pronouns and procedures, in a texture regularly witty and beautiful but (in the absence of meaning) sometimes unsalvageable from monotony. T.S. Eliot said that no verse was free for the man who wanted to do a good job. But he had not read John Ashbery.
If there is a certain lack of human viciousness in Ashbery, critics of poetry have been helpfully able to find that viciousness ready to hand in Philip Larkin’s verse, especially since his death in 1985. Ashbery’s first successful volume, Some Trees, came out in 1956; Larkin’s first fully achieved collection had appeared the year before. Nearly twenty years later, when High Windows was published in 1974, Larkin’s career was all but over, though he had a handful of powerful poems still to write. What he wrote in those two decades makes him (in my view) the most distinguished writer in English of the last half-century. But it is not my purpose here to argue that standing. Rather, I want to suggest that Larkin is a kind of ideal opposite to Ashbery. Ashbery is and was a master of distraction. Larkin’s importance is the decisiveness with which he mastered an art of attraction. The word is bound to carry a kind of in-built injustice in the context. I want merely to contrast the poet’s styles and techniques to those of Ashbery, in learning to speak to and for the culture of an essentially small country.
The word ‘learning’ needs stress. It is worth recalling that Anthony Thwaite’s edition of Larkin’s Collected Poems puts into its Juvenilia the seventy or so poems written before Larkin began to find himself in the late 1940s. Only with the publication of The Less Deceived (when he was 33) was Larkin’s true voice sustained. There, he kept himself firmly turned away from his earlier uncertain styles, which were close enough to Auden and Yeats and Dylan Thomas to be called vaguely Modernist, even faintly distractive. The speech he found was in direct contrast: a weighty, easy and conversable social intimacy, occasionally spoken of later by critics in terms of the British bar parlour. And certainly, this was one of the writer’s own ordinary speaking tones, though only one, and the others could be decidedly other: intensely nervous, stammering and sensitive, conscientious, on the whole kind and principled.
Larkin’s new style proved that he could communicate best as a ‘poet of attraction’: a writer with peculiar power to hold and engross the attention, to move the feelings, even to encourage identification in more innocent readers. Had his artistic impersonality not prevented it, and had he gone further on the same line, he might have become (let us say, to be cruel) a poet like John Betjeman, an artist sometimes of benign seduction rather than of true attraction, a brilliant cultural phenomenon but the lesser maker. Larkin is the more difficult of the two simply because he seems easy, but is not. The extraordinary lapse in his reputation since his death probably proves all this. The poet’s social image was (conceivably) shifted by some element of misjudgment in the over-hasty publication of the Selected Letters and, more, by the misunderstandings of Andrew Motion’s Life. The Letters left unexplained the poet’s own characteristic masochistic self-contempt and self-derision, the assumption of attitudes tried out on suitable correspondents but not always held truly or permanently by the writer; the equally personal biases of the biography underlined the incidental damage done. Less literate readers withdrew in shock and disappointment precisely because they were failing to meet here the ideal and aesthetic art of ‘attraction’ the poems led them to expect. A public formerly attracted to the point of being infatuated now saw itself as jilted and didn’t like it.
Larkin’s art of attraction worked thus. The two immediately preceding generations of poets writing in English or Anglo-American were endowed with a kind of authority by their very Modernism. Larkin, a man perceptibly insecure psychologically, lacking natural self-assertion, learned how to survive in this competitively threatening context by inheriting and preserving an actually Modernist finesse, but by rendering it in a medium apparently hostile. The Less Deceived is attractive in its appeal to a culture that is geographically small, defined and socially coherent (or theoretically so). That coherency required roles and tones that were obdurately conservative, in fact up to a point appearing neo-Georgian – although it is noteworthy that later, as editor of The Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse, Larkin recorded in an interview his sense of the staleness of most Georgian poetic language. In the same good cause, the poet crafted a manner that was personal where Modernism was impersonal, social where Modernism was symbolistically transcendental, and parochial where Modernism was international. His verse relies on substance that is common, communal and commonplace, and relays it in the form of unpretentious anecdote, sudden easy recall, and in forms traditional and elegantly built, solidly pleasing to mind and ear. But the poems certainly move us. And even their sometimes attacked feelingful sentimental quality is (I suspect) a kind of democratic legerdemain, a way of ‘attracting’ or bringing in bystanders. Moreover, they move us at a depth and with a complication not altogether explained simply by praising Larkin’s beautiful style, his ways of raising a low subject. With a writer this good, style and subject were one.
The Collected Poems opens with the 1946 poem ‘Going’. This is a fine work of death-horror (‘What holds my hands down?’) even if you happen not to be – and not everyone is – especially or outstandingly frightened of death; and the reason is the way the poet is already using, not merely uttering, a large simple human emotion. ‘Going’ is from the beginning a stranger, more unnerving poem than we might expect from this apparently socially cosy personality. It is because of the darkness compacted into an art of attraction that some readers have always complained of Larkin’s ‘depressingness’, his ‘negativeness’. Up to a point this is fair comment. But it should be understood that the energy and power of the poems as poems comes from a perpetual tension between possible ends, as potent as any of Ashbery’s philosophical paradoxes. As a result, Larkin’s art of attraction has been more and more steadily charged with the unattractive.
High Windows, the volume I most admire, brings this doubleness to an intensity. It chooses topics of conventional social substance – a hospital, a station hotel, a country fête, a day by the sea, a solitary drink, a glance at a bank statement, the smell of cut grass in summer. All provide the occasion for small as well as local, defiantly ‘little England’ poems. But this contentious Larkinian smallness, even cosiness, always puzzles: it is always in effect exploding outwards, undermined. The most obviously startling symptoms are the four-letter words, all the poetic obscenities, rumoured to have deprived the writer of public honours for some years. I don’t myself find this violent verbal play unreasonable given the ambiguous humour and wit, even the verbal scholarship with which they are handled. But they are undoubtedly eye-opening, a disturbance of the ‘attractive’ surface. The interestingly-titled ‘Vers de Société’ opens:
My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps
You’d care to join us? In a pig’s arse, friend.
Whenever I had occasion to observe him, Philip Larkin was himself a beautiful guest, kind, considerate, well-behaved and extremely funny. And in the poem, too, the invitation is accepted finally, against all internal resistance. But the société of the poem disintegrates steadily outwards towards its image of ‘the moon thinned/To an air-sharpened blade’. The effect is of a silent but very subversive explosion: like the tragic mining disaster recalled in the poem itself entitled ‘The Explosion’ (perhaps finest of all in the collection). It ends, paradoxically, with a quiet image of the miner’s capful of ‘eggs, unbroken’. That very good critic of poetry, A. Alvarez, once mocked Larkin toughly for his un-American gentility. And it is a fact that all the poet’s earlier work, both in verse and prose, has to fight against an instinct for prettiness, a gentility. But it wins. And these highly attractive late poems, gathering alarmed readers into centripetal nests of occasion, are also mysteriously energised and enlarged by depths and violences beyond the merely linguistic.
John Ashbery’s ‘distraction’ (to revert for a moment) works by a paradox. The enormous desperate vagrancy always and surprisingly has room for affections, jokes, intimacies; his drifting reflections have the most fastidious styles and a strong character and manage to be personal enough to centre on Popeye and ‘you’. While scale seems vital to Ashbery’s endeavour, he is an artist also of the very small, as in the haiku, and in titles which are themselves often the briefest and funniest of poems, like the oddly dreamy ‘Houseboat Days’. The exact reverse happens with Larkin. The splendid square-stanza’d poems, so competent, so workmanlike, almost businesslike in their celebration of social rituals, occasions, anecdotes and types (formally saluting beloved ladies including the Queen of England), can all calmly and suddenly give way to the abyss, can greet nothingness. All the ‘Livings’ – three simple and magnificent poems about professions – are really dyings, with lost centuries swirling between and inside them. ‘Friday Night at the Royal Station Hotel’ establishes the opening of its sonnet’s octave with a wonderful evocation of snuggest British dreariness, to end its sestet in sudden archaic loneliness and distance:
The headed paper, made for writing home
(If home existed) letters of exile: Now
Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.
The writer of this is often casually supposed, not without his own encouragement, to detest T.S. Eliot. But these lines deeply echo not merely the Eliot of ‘East Coker’ at its most startlingly primal and oceanic (‘Out at sea the dawn wind/Wrinkles and slides’) but an Eliot himself remembering St John Perse in the vast early nomadic movements of Anabasis. Or again, it is questionable whether any docile critical enthusiast for the ‘attractive’ Larkin has found himself really able to admire the extraordinary ‘The Card-Players’, the imitation of a small framed 17th-century Dutch genre painting, beautiful in its pissing, belching, snoring, farting way, which opens to include the ‘century-wide trees’ that ‘Clash in surrounding starlessness above’ (outside the inn, outside the frame?), then deepens, with its ‘queen of hearts’, into a harsh and private legend of love. ‘Rain, wind and fire’: the ‘genteel’ maker of an art of attraction is at home with powers genuinely elemental.
The comparison with the poet of the Quartets, who perhaps used elements (air, earth, water and fire) to help him to a structure, takes us back to the Eliot who naturalised Modernism in England. In thinking about Anglo-American writing in the past century, I have taken the latest American development to be an art of distraction, and have used Ashbery’s poetry to illustrate it; and I have taken the English contribution to be an art of attraction, embodied at its best in Larkin’s work. The last fifty years have seen a conscious withdrawal into two camps, with the writing on both sides essentially too formed and divided to be fuseable with the other. But for the half-century before, a kind of marriage was possible; and the officiating cleric was Eliot.
A part of the literary history of the 20th century was Eliot’s gigantic public status and authority, and the steady collapse of that status and authority. The collapse has for several decades now been written down in terms of a discovered or imputed misogyny and anti-semitism. The assailing of Eliot’s reputation is a difficult and vexed matter; a poet professionally and substantially involved with the society of his time is likely (however deplorably) to manifest signs of that society’s undoubted misogyny and anti-semitism. But these arguments seem to me rationalisations for changes of cultural climate and mere fashion. Eliot remains the superb (if highly individual) poet he always was. This is not, however, a good time to enjoy and appreciate him, for one simple reason. Apart from anything else, Eliot took his immense standing from being the first and greatest Anglo-American poet. The point of literary development he worked for, with very great intelligence and gifts, has since come to require either marked separation (Distraction v. Attraction) or a quite other form of amalgam, technology-based. His celebrity image is therefore (it is good to say) over; his real work is still there in its peculiar excellence to discover.
From his first book-publication in war-darkened London in 1917, attraction and distraction are one in his writing:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table . . .
The first line is the social voice of the after-dinner late Victorian drawing-room, the male proposing a garden-stroll to his female dinner partner. Few readers, however, have failed to half-assume that the address is to themselves: justifiably, given that the whole subject of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is the degree to which imagination at once makes love and makes the lover distracted. Thus with the second line the garden of love expands worryingly into dislocation and synaesthesia: should evenings be so solid and so random and so high? What is actually proposed, the half-desertion, the muttering, the one-night cheap hotels and climactically the shells of aphrodisiac oysters, are not going to do for a social lady – or rather, to see it another way, are too likely to do for a social lady. And the ‘overwhelming question’ leads to the wrong kind of altar. Just as America and Europe seem here to intertwine topographically, so the public and the private collapse into each other. Attraction is too distracting.
‘In the room the women come and go’: Eliot never leaves the room and the women, from the ‘Love Song’ to the wholly private rose-garden of the public ‘Dedication to My Wife’. Social conventions are vital to his work, so long as they become dissolving ironies – like Mr Silvero and Madame de Tornquist and Fraulein von Kulp ‘Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door’. Eliot’s developing verse, with its ambiguous enjambments and its swaying, divided syntax, its European echoes and its American intonations, returns to the image of a door about to be opened or shut, like The Waste Land’s ‘empty chapel’ that ‘has no windows, and the door swings’. As in the painful and brilliant parodies around 1920, the mind of the writer (‘the man with heavy eyes’ in ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’) is neither in nor out, merely ‘apart’.
Eliot could not have written like this without his own expatriation, first at home neither east nor west in America itself, then unbelonging in an England at last not unloved, but at first not actually chosen. When he came, from Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman, to write for the stage that his theatrical imagination always loved, he was probably fully aware that his characters’ speech is neither American nor English – hence the quiet anonymity or cosmopolitanism he courted.
But the ‘different voices’ of The Waste Land are nothing but a virtue, given that its theme is human attraction and distraction. The Waste Land is ‘waste’ because it offers no resting-place – you cannot stay or build there:
we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
The ‘Unreal City’ of London is unreal because – then as now – nobody lives there, it is a place where people ‘come and go’; life or rather death goes on only in Stetson’s suburban garden where the dog digs. Everything in this marvellous poem has a significance of irrelevance, of distracted attraction: nothing works, nothing means what it says, nothing is at home, though everything glows surreally,
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it.
Like the poem’s own refusal of structure, nothing in The Waste Land has its rooted and formal place. Everything flows, like the wind and the river and the ‘last fingers of leaf’ that ‘clutch and sink’; ‘the human engine waits/Like a taxi throbbing waiting’ while passes are made – but, like everything else, they pass. The distracting attraction of ‘Let us go then, you and I’ touches Marie who holds on tight and goes downhill, and the lover of the girl with hyacinths, who ‘failed, I was neither living nor dead’; Stetson cannot help his sometime friend or ally, who mocks sadistically; the rich he and she of ‘A Game of Chess’ quarrel without exchanging a word or meeting lidless eyes; the typist and the house agent’s clerk together ‘make a welcome of indifference’; Elizabeth and Leicester are as directionless on the water as the three ruined typists, all sold, all expecting ‘nothing’. The electricity of human feeling moves through the poem like the thunder speaking or the ‘flash of lightning’, but the words in the thunder are scattered, distracted, and in different languages.
Eliot later said of The Waste Land, in impatient rejection of what had been (in his view) over-admired in it, that for much of the time he had hardly even known what he was writing. That knowledge obviously came to him more steadily through the rest of his career, at once purifying and perhaps narrowing a vision. Difficult as they are, the writer of the Quartets knew where these abstract and luminous poems were going. They were going nowhere – ‘England and nowhere’, just as ‘Home is where one starts from.’ It could be said of these poems, written from the mid-1930s to a point midway through the Second World War, that they slowly come to terms with, refine and spiritualise, a deep dream about belonging. They search for and deny an idea about what Henry James called ‘the Great Good Place’, part-American, part-European: and they finally localise it (if anywhere) in ‘England and nowhere’ – an England at war. The magical places invoked – a historical house, a Tudor village, a childhood meal, a wintry chapel – are all places holding the profoundest ‘attraction’, an attraction that symbolises love and living together. But all images of belonging are themselves now distractions, ghosts that must be exorcised. Hovering between America and Europe, attracted and distracted, the voice of these poems is a ‘spirit unappeased and peregrine,/ Between two worlds become much like each other’.
My argument has been that, held together by Eliot and other good poets and critics, Anglo-American literature has finally severed since his death: Larkin taking one path (not unaffected by Modernism) and Ashbery another (not forgetful of his European inheritance). But Eliot is surely right, too, in the wonderfully noble and touching third movement of ‘Little Gidding’, which uses an echo of the English Civil Wars side by side with a spiritualised courtesy glance at the American-French aesthetic school of Symbolism:
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us – a symbol.
The energies and ironies of both attraction and distraction ‘Accept the constitution of silence/And are folded in a single party.’ Eliot’s sequence of poems achieves what (to return to my beginning) O’Neill believed impossible: the writing of a major work in ‘the discordant, broken, faithless rhythm of our time’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.